There's been a lot of controversy lately over whether Citizens Energy Corp. should distribute -- and the poor should accept -- discount heating oil from Venezuela while that country is under the leadership of President Hugo Chávez.
But those who have no problem staying warm at night should not condemn others for accepting Venezuela's oil. Rhetoric means little to an elderly woman who has to drag an old cot from her basement to sleep by the warmth of the open kitchen stove or give up food or medicine to pay her heating bill.
For nearly 30 years, Citizens Energy has provided senior citizens and low-income families with affordable fuel oil, gas, electricity, pharmaceutical drugs, and other basic necessities. Citgo Petroleum is a US company owned by the people of Venezuela. The oil it provides to Citizens Energy, the nonprofit that I lead, acts as a safety net for hundreds of thousands.
When our partnership with Citgo was announced last year, US Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman praised the discount program as corporate philanthropy. "It's a charitable contribution," he said, "and I wish more companies did it." Charities like the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Muscular Dystrophy Association receive generous donations from Citgo, but no one is telling them to decline the gifts.
Meanwhile, oil companies other than Citgo have declined to share their record profits with those who most struggle to keep pace with rising energy costs.
In spite of the fact that heating oil prices have doubled over the past few years, the federal fuel assistance program faces a one-third cut this year, from $3.1 billion to $2.1 billion. Washington earns windfall tax revenues from the rising prices of petroleum products, but not a cent goes to offset rising energy costs for the poor. Nor do the poor benefit from increased royalties on gas and oil taken from federal lands and waters -- if, in fact, the energy companies pay the government at all.
Criticism of our program isn't about cheap heating oil. It's all about Hugo. While conservative interests in this country don't like him, US businesses don't mind his money and his marketplace.
Otherwise, why would General Motors and Ford sell more than 300,000 cars a year in Venezuela? Why would Chevron Texaco, Exxon Mobil, Shell, and other major corporations -- including Vice President Cheney's old firm, Halliburton -- invest and earn billions every year off of petroleum exploration, production, refining, and transportation in the country? Why would US insurance companies, banks, telecom firms, entertainment conglomerates, and consumer product manufacturers flock to our Latin American neighbor?
American consumers certainly don't mind doing business with Venezuela. More than 558 million barrels of Venezuelan crude and oil products were shipped to the United States last year. Just one-half of 1 percent of that goes into our organization's program, but that's the only portion that draws criticism.
Even though doing business with Venezuela has been very good for capitalists, the issue at hand is Chávez and his politics of socialism. Before we accept the characterizations of him as a socialist threat to our way of life, we ought to look at our own country -- ironically, a system of socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.
Banks make billions on the gap between federal lending rates and what they charge consumers to borrow for homes, cars, small businesses, and personal needs. The government guarantees their deposits, so that if the banks fail, the taxpayer is left holding the bag.
Insurance companies charge consumers with premiums that go up and up, yet expect the government to cover their losses when they get hit -- as we saw in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Student loan corporations, working closely with colleges and universities, contribute to spiraling higher-education costs with loans guaranteed by the government.
The fact is that many of the bluest of our blue chip corporations may actually be wearing a shade of Hugo Chávez red beneath their suspenders -- with one major difference: They're fine with socializing the risks of capitalism, so long as they can privatize the profits. As for the poor? They're decidedly on their own.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the president is socializing his nation's oil profits. Poverty has dropped by 25 percent. State-sponsored provision of basic needs like food and healthcare has expanded.
So, sure, we'll distribute Hugo's oil. Doing so is called compassionate capitalism. Right now, our country's vulnerable families fend for themselves, while the well-to-do can afford to throw snowballs at our program from the security of their warm homes and offices.
Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former member of Congress from Massachusetts, is the founder, president, and chairman of Citizens Energy Corporation.
© 2006 The Boston Globe